LAHORE: An overloaded boat carrying dozens of passengers, most of them women and children, capsized in the River Ravi near Nankana Sahib district on Friday.
The boat, sailing from Nankana’s Said Wala tehsil to Okara capsized shortly after leaving Said Wala. An emergency rescue operation was mounted by district administration and rescue teams in a bid to save as many lives as possible.
However, rescuers were forced to stop their hours-long search as darkness enveloped the area. Officials at Rescue 1122 said they would resume the search for survivors early Saturday morning.
It is not clear how many passengers have been accounted for or those deemed missing following the incident. Until now government officials have not been to confirm the exact number of passengers on board the vessel. However, by nightfall only a six-year-old girl Muqaddas was counted among those presumed dead.
However, some unconfirmed reports suggested that there were at least 70 people who were still unaccounted for, reporting that the boat was carrying 130 passengers.
“Only the family of six-year-old Muqaddas claims that their daughter is missing. They (government officials) have made announcements in nearby mosques, requesting people to report their missing dear ones,” District Police Officer Nankana Sahibzada Bilal Omer told The Express Tribune.
Rescue 1122 District Emergency Officer Muhammad Akram told The Express Tribune that no one seemed to know the exact number of fatalities and what actually caused the boat to capsize.
“We mounted a search operation throughout the day to locate the missing persons, but we could not find any,” he said. “It is difficult to say how many more victims have to be recovered.”
After repeated announcements in mosques, the parents of only one victim, six-year-old girl, had come forward to claim that their daughter was missing, Akram said.
People said Rescue 1122 reached the spot after over a delay of one-and-a-half hour of the incident because its office at Nankana Sahib was 55 kilometres away from the location of the incident.
According to eyewitness accounts, there were more than 70 people on board the vessel at the time of the sinking. A majority of them managed to swim back to the river bank themselves, they said.
One of the survivors said the boat overturned after colliding with a heavy wooden log from a broken bridge floating in the river. He said the boat was crammed with passengers as well as livestock, dozens of motorcycles and other cargo.
Sailor Khaliq, while confirming the story, told The Express Tribune all the passengers except a child survived the tragedy. He said that he was the last person to swim back to the river bank after making sure that all victims had made their way to safety.
Khaliq contested media claims that there were a large number of fatalities in the incident, saying it was a gross exaggeration. According to him, there were fewer than 70 passengers on the boat, adding the vessel did not have the capacity to carry more passengers.
Nankana city police chief Sahibzada Bilal Omer said that law enforcers had taken the contractor into custody and would take action against him as per the directives of the government.
Meanwhile, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations in a tweet said that Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had directed a special search operation for the victims of the capsized boat. Teams of army divers have been asked to join the search party.
Also, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has sought a report from the district administration regarding the incident. He also issued directives to accelerate relief work, said a handout issued by the Director General Public Relations.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2017.